There’s no denying it: Meow Meow is fabulous, and it’s entirely a mask, from the prim RP accent that makes her sound like Princess Diana to the black bouffant hair that makes her look like 1980s-heyday Joan Collins. It’s a mask of metal construction, solid and unyielding: what spills across the stage and over the audience might have the appearance of stuttering, shambling chaos, but cast an eye over reviews of other shows she’s performed this year, in London during the summer or in the US in the autumn, and it’s clear how rigorously polished the struggles of this “diva of disaster” actually are. The guests who don’t show, the venue that’s not quite grand enough, the neat line in self-mockery and even tidier line of pills to be popped when it all gets too much – every item a cheerfully recycled trope, tweaked to suit the room and the occasion.
This time, the occasion happens to be Christmas – and that’s where Apocalypse Meow glimpses that something a little more fragile. Because what is Christmas? Is it the cards, the presents, the wrapping paper, the interminable traipse around crowded shops, the guilty splurge on Amazon, the gluttonish gorging on meat and cheese? Yes, damn it, it’s the STUFF, and Meow Meow wants her some stuff. A house? Sure – but a mortgage? No, thanks. A nuclear family? Maybe. In the meantime, she’ll take a little of what the audience have. Hello, gentleman in the front row, your coat looks warm. Hello lady further back, what a lovely new handbag you have. And you, must be a critic, that notepad will do just fine.
But no, that isn’t it. Christmas isn’t about the physical stuff, it’s about the intangible wishes: the wish for certain presents, for happy evenings snuggled before an open fire, for the coming year to be better than the one draining down the plughole. Brilliantly, joyfully, Meow Meow’s wishes all come true, from the wish to be a taller, thinner version of herself, to the wish to run away with her sisters and join the circus, to the wish to grow up to be a prima ballerina, arms fluttering as she dances a solo in Swan Lake. Her dream sequences run the gamut from bathos to pathos, from tears of laughter to a fillip of the heart. But that’s not it either.
Because what is Christmas, at its root, if not the commemoration of the birth of a child? Meow Meow tries that, too, squeezing out plastic inflatable animals from a swollen belly, nursing a mannequin, singing in husky, humble tones of the longing to experience this event so momentous that “it would bring meaning”. There are moments when it feels that she’s ripped the mask right off and exposed herself: as a woman of a certain age, wondering whether she’ll regret not having children. Moments that reminded me of a blog post by Stella Duffy – a tenderly honest writer on the pain of not being able to have children – describing “dreaming into a future where no toddler becomes a small child becomes a teenager becomes an adult, the knowledge that it stops with me”. Moments that stitch into a gauzy fabric of sadness and puzzlement, meltingly soft to the touch.
And Christmas, in its most sentimental representation, is entirely about children. Meow Meow brings two on to the stage, slim little girls with voices clean as snow and just as insubstantial; she serenades them with a weirdly chirpy version of Nick Cave’s Red Right Hand, and unceremoniously sabotages their rosy-cheeked rendition of Silent Night by bringing on a vacuum cleaner. The mask of fabulousness snaps into place. I go home to my sleeping children and a bit of me wishes I could wear it.
Cabaret Apocalypse: Meow Meow on ‘agitational entertainment’ and the meaning of Christmas